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Teaching EAL/D Learners

in Australian Classrooms
Michle de Courcy, Karen Dooley, Robert Jackson,
Jenny Miller and Kathy Rushton
Australia has always been a culturally and linguistically diverse place,
and our modern nation comprises people from over 2000 different
ethnic backgrounds. Many different languages are spoken in homes
and communities across Australia and consequently many primary
school students are learning English as an additional language or
dialect (EAL/D). This PETAA Paper outlines some of the recent trends
in the theory and practice of EAL/D teaching and learning, offering
relevant support for all classroom teachers to cater more effectively
to EAL/D learners in their classes.
EAL/D is the educational acronym now used in Australia to refer
to those students whose home language or first language (L1) is a
language or dialect other than Standard Australian English (SAE) and
who require additional support to develop proficiency in SAE, which
is the variety of spoken and written formal English used in Australian
schools. The new acronym (EAL/D) foregrounds the English language
learning needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who
speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait creole, or a variety of Aboriginal
English, as well as those who speak a traditional or heritage
Indigenous language, and migrant and refugee students who speak
an English-based creole, pidgin or dialect, as well as those who are
learning English as a second or additional language (ESL/EAL).

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PO Box 3106 Marrickville Metro NSW 2204 Tel 61 (0)2 8020 3900 www.petaa.edu.au

ISSN 2200-2189

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The Australian Curriculum, Assessment

and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has
developed an English as an Additional
Language or Dialect: Teacher Resource to
support teachers to design and implement
teaching programs in all learning areas
to make content in the Australian
Curriculum accessible for EAL/D
learners. This substantial and useful
resource consists of an Introduction
and Overview, an EAL/D Learning
Progression, Advice for Teachers of
EAL/D Students and a Glossary of Terms.
Additional materials developed for the
Australian Curriculum to assist teachers
include a selection of annotated EAL/D
student work samples, and annotations
to the learning area content descriptions
which provide linguistic and cultural
considerations and suggested teaching
strategies for EAL/D learners. The link
to this online resource is provided at the
end of the article.

Who are EAL/D

Approximately one in four students in
Australian schools is learning English
as a second or additional language or
dialect. These learners come from diverse
backgrounds and include children born
in Australia, including Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander students, and
migrants, refugees and international
students born overseas.
EAL/D learners also have diverse
educational, linguistic and literacy
backgrounds. Some have had formal
schooling and might even have learnt
English as a foreign language (EFL)
in their country of origin; others have
had little or no formal schooling or
have experienced severely disrupted
education. Some possess literacy skills

in their home language which are equivalent to the SAE

literacy skills of their school-age peers in Australia; others
have minimal or no literacy experiences in any language.
Some have a degree of familiarity with written English (SAE)
and good academic language skills, but need to develop oral
English (SAE) and more informal social registers. Some have
experienced emotional, psychological and/or physical trauma
in their resettlement or transition to formal education which is
liable to impact on their learning in Australian schools.
EAL/D learners can enter Australian primary schools at any
age and at any time of the year. They are generally placed
at the grade level appropriate for their age. They may live
in metropolitan, regional, rural, remote or very remote
areas in Australia, and in socio-economically advantaged or
disadvantaged situations.

Identifying EAL/D learners

It is essential that teachers are familiar with the cultural and
linguistic backgrounds of their students. Teachers should seek
to develop a classroom environment which values, utilises and
extends the rich and diverse linguistic and cultural resources
and heritages that all children bring to school. Inviting EAL/D
learners (and all students) to share their cultural and linguistic
knowledge and experiences will create an inclusive space for
EAL/D learners in the educational environment and afford
opportunities for deep learning and intercultural understanding
for the entire class.
Completing a sociolinguistic profile (eg, birthplace, date of
arrival in Australia, first language/s spoken, etc.) is a useful
way for teachers to predict students learning needs, and their
English language learning needs, and can be an effective aid to
planning. This profile can be completed at the beginning of the
year, or when a new student arrives, and might be conducted
via a whole class survey or a peer interview activity.
Further questioning will help to identify EAL/D learners and
their specific linguistic and educational backgrounds. For
example, students can be asked what languages they speak
and hear in their interactions with different family members
and acquaintances in home and community contexts. They
can be asked to list the school/s they have attended previously,
for how long, and what language/s they used at the school/s.
Particular care must be taken when identifying the language
backgrounds of students who speak a creole, pidgin or alternate

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PETAA Paper 183: Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms

variety of English as their home language. Currently, and

particularly in communities where students speak a variety of
Aboriginal English and/or an Aboriginal or Torres Strait creole
as their home language, this language or language variety
is unnamed or unidentified, and thus goes unrecognised by
schools and educational authorities. It is assumed incorrectly
that the students home language is English (ie, SAE). These
EAL/D learners, as a result, are often subjected to unsuitable
instructional methodologies and inappropriate referrals for
educational remediation.
EAL/D learners identified as having had limited or no previous
exposure to Standard Australian English in a formal learning
situation should be referred immediately to specialist EAL/D
(or ESL) teachers, executive staff or consultants at the school
or jurisdictional level for further assessment and support.

The importance of oral

language development
In the early years especially, developing talking and listening is
essential in supporting EAL/D learners development of literacy
in Standard Australian English. Protolanguage is the term
coined by the linguist Michael Halliday to describe the sounds
and gestures used by infants to communicate their physical,
emotional and social needs and engage with their immediate
environment before they learn to speak recognisable language.
All of us who have attempted to communicate in a foreign
language know that our first point of learning is often similar
to that of a young child who starts to use language by pointing
then naming. Many children also go through a silent period
when learning their first language, and the same can happen
when learning a second just because an EAL/D learner is not
speaking does not mean that attention is not being paid to the
new language.
Before EAL/D learners have become skilful at decoding or
writing words, they may have learnt a language or several
languages or dialects. They bring to school a very valuable
resource their spoken language as it represents their
background experiences and demonstrates their language
skills. Foregrounding and using students bilingualism and
bidialectalism can be an effective way of developing the
language awareness of all students in the classroom.
All teachers should permit and encourage EAL/D learners to
use their first language (L1) in the classroom where appropriate.

First language maintenance (ie, the

ongoing development of an EAL/D
learners home language) is essential for
the preservation and growth of students
personal and cultural identities and their
family relationships. As well, research
has demonstrated the importance of
students L1 both for learning a second
language (L2), and for learning in and
through L2. Using bilingual or bidialectal
learning resources and activities,
a bilingual or bidialectal teaching
assistant, or a more able student from
the same language or dialect background
to explain concepts in the students
home language are useful strategies
for supporting EAL/D learners. When
conducting research for an information
report, for example, EAL/D learners
might be permitted to seek out and use
texts written in their home languages,
and they should be encouraged to read
widely in the languages and literatures
of their home cultures as well as in SAE.
The thoughtful development of an
oral language program can support all
students including those who have not
had rich encounters with literature and
language outside the classroom. Talk in
the classroom may be part of a process
of learning or a reflection about learning
and it is vital that teachers consider
student learning as always including
learning about language as well as about
the subject matter of the discipline. For
example, giving and listening to oral
descriptions is an excellent starting point
from which the teacher can provide
support for students to move from
one language or dialect to another by
reference to familiar objects or situations
or other shared subject matter. Teachers
may also use this type of everyday
activity to assist EAL/D learners to move
along the mode continuum from spoken
to written language.

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PETAA Paper 183: Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms

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It is important to provide EAL/D

learners with authentic contexts for
communicating using both spoken-like
and written-like language. Developing
an understanding that spoken and written
language have different characteristics
and that each can be used in particular
contexts to achieve a purpose can
influence the pedagogical choices
teachers make in their classrooms.
Collaborative classrooms are those in
which students are given opportunities to
reuse and reflect on language and where
there is talk around texts in varying
contexts. The type of interaction found
in these classrooms is most valuable
when supported by explicit discussion
using metalanguage (language used
to talk about language) which helps
students see that language is a resource
for making meaning.
English language teaching researchers use
the metaphor of scaffolding to describe
the relationship between language,
learning and thinking in a collaborative
classroom where students are supported
to actively negotiate and construct
meaning. In this sense, scaffolding is the
temporary support provided by teachers
and more able peers in the classroom
to assist EAL/D learners and enable
them to complete tasks and acquire new
language skills.

Recent research suggests that fluent first
language (L1) reading can both facilitate
and interfere with second language
(L2) reading. In this view reading is
understood as language processing subskills (eg, decoding) that rely on ability
to reflect on and manipulate language
(eg, phonological awareness). A first

task of learning to read then, is to work out how the writing

system maps the language. But while that task itself is shared
across languages, details vary from language to language.
The writing system is one source of variation. There are
three types of writing system: alphabetic mapping print to
phonemes (eg, English, Arabic); syllabic mapping print
to syllables (eg, Japanese kana); and morphosyllabic
mapping print to syllable morphemes (Chinese only). With
an alphabetic writing system, the reader must map print to
the smallest segments of sound (vowels or consonants). In
contrast, with a syllabic system, they must map print to a larger
phonological unit usually consisting of a vowel combined with
one or more consonants.
The novice readers task is affected also by the use a language
makes of the graphemes (smallest print units) of its writing
system, that is, by orthography. Orthography is described as
shallow or transparent when the sounds of the language
can be retrieved reliably from print. Italian and Spanish are
examples; their use of the letters of the Roman alphabet involves
(near) one-to-one correspondence. In contrast, orthography is
deep or opaque when retrieval of phonological information
is less reliable. English is an example; its use of the letters of
the Roman alphabet involves one-to-many grapheme-phoneme
Researchers have found that phonological knowledge used
by L1 readers facilitates L2 reading. This is not surprising.
Aspects of phonological awareness (eg, awareness of syllables)
can develop naturally from experience of rhythmic language;
they are independent of literacy instruction. This underscores
the need to adjust classroom programs of phonological
awareness to EAL/D learner need. For example, an older child
in the Beginning English phase may not necessarily require
phonological awareness activities identical to those provided
in early years classrooms for English L1 readers. Assessment
of learner need is crucial. Furthermore, ways might be found
of drawing EAL/D learners L1 phonological awareness into
the classroom or of helping the learners develop phonological
awareness in their L1, for example, by encouraging parents
to recite and sing with their children, clapping beats and
accentuating rhymes.
A second transfer effect relevant to primary literacy instruction
relates to language distance. Several studies show that, at
given developmental points, English L2 reading is faster and
more accurate for learners literate in alphabetic rather than

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PETAA Paper 183: Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms

non-alphabetic L1 orthographies. This suggests that EAL/D

learners require explicit instruction and ample opportunities
to set or re-set reading skills for English. Primary teachers
expertise in codebreaking instruction is an asset in this regard;
the challenge is to know the particularity of the reading needs
of EAL/D learners.
Phonemic awareness may be one instructional need. Novice
L2 readers need to learn to hear and manipulate the sounds
of English. Moreover, readers of non-alphabetic languages
may require awareness of the phoneme itself. Phonemic
awareness activities used with novice English L1 readers
may be useful: isolating sounds in words, blending sounds
to form words, segmenting words into sounds and so forth.
A second instructional need relates to grapheme-phoneme
correspondence: EAL/D learners require instruction in the
sound/symbol relationships of English. A third instructional
need relates to the very opaque orthography of English: the
learning of sight words, phonics rules, onset-rime, and syllabic
and morphemic word identification strategies. Existing early
years code-breaking programs may offer much to EAL/D
readers in this regard; older novice readers of English L2
require similar opportunities. The aim is to develop fluent and
automatic code breaking so that EAL/D learners can focus on
comprehension the usual goal of reading.

Vocabulary and
comprehension in focus
It is quite possible to read aloud fluently in a new language
with minimal comprehension: the problem for many EAL/D
learners is not that they cannot decode or read the words on
the page, but that they cannot comprehend them.
Vocabulary knowledge and comprehension are crucial in
developing the ability to read meaningfully and to learn
through reading, and research shows that there is a strong
reciprocal relationship between the two. That is, vocabulary
development is both an outcome of comprehension and a
precursor to it, with word meanings making up as much
as 70-80% of what learners understand from text. In fact,
the proportion of new words in a text is the single most
reliable predictor of its difficulty for learners. Therefore
the relationship between vocabulary and comprehension is
two-way and dynamic, with one proviso lower primary
learners rely on oral language and words they are familiar

with through speaking to scaffold their

reading development, but as they
progress, more and more vocabulary is
learned from written text.
Students arrive at school with vastly
different levels of vocabulary, due to
their home backgrounds. EAL/D learners
may arrive with minimal English
vocabulary, and so the explicit teaching
of vocabulary becomes critical, as it is
the best predictor of both reading and
listening comprehension across all
years of schooling. If new words are not
consistently taught and learned in all
subject areas, then the problems EAL/D
learners face are compounded, and their
ongoing underachievement becomes
more likely.
influences comprehension more than
any other factor. Although wide reading
can build word knowledge and also
knowledge about the world, students need
thoughtful and systematic instruction in
key vocabulary. This requires careful
planning by teachers. Direct instruction
means that the new or difficult words in
a text are first predicted by the teacher,
and then activities are devised to define,
practise and recycle the new vocabulary.
For students to understand a word, at
least three interrelated meaning-making
systems come into play: graphophonic
(knowledge of sound-letter relationships,
ie, decoding), semantic (knowledge
of the word meaning), and syntactic
(knowledge of the word class or how
the word fits into language structure).
In proficient readers, these systems are
deployed simultaneously.
Teachers should ensure that texts
are comprehensible for students (ie,
that they provide what is known as
comprehensible input). If EAL/D
learners cannot comprehend at the

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PETAA Paper 183: Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms

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literal level of understanding, they

cannot progress to the deeper levels of
critical, interpretive or creative meaningmaking.
Research has demonstrated that for
students to comprehend a text without
assistance from the teacher, they must
already know 98 per cent of the words.
In the middle years, this requires a
vocabulary of 8000 to 9000 words. For
instruction, where the teacher scaffolds
or supports the students comprehension,
90-95 per cent coverage (existing word
knowledge) is still required. This finding
indicates that learners must reach much
higher vocabulary sizes than thought
before to read in class. If texts are
harder than 90-95 per cent coverage,
they will not work as instructional texts,
and students will become frustrated or
give up. This can be a real danger for
EAL/D learners. Low-literacy EAL/D
learners in particular require an explicit
and continuing focus on building sight
vocabulary and comprehension skills.
There are some time-worn but effective
strategies for building in an explicit
comprehension and vocabulary focus
for EAL/D learners. Indeed, such
literacy strategies work for all learners.
Note that there is a difference between
receptive vocabulary (ie, words students
recognise) and expressive vocabulary
(ie, words used in speaking or writing).
Research indicates that students may
need to encounter a new word up to
15 times to acquire it as part of their
expressive vocabulary (hence the need
for recycling). For direct or explicit
instruction, teaching fewer words well is
more effective than teaching many words
in a cursory way. Teachers should also
focus on high frequency words in texts
rather than more obscure terminology.

That is, teach the words students are definitely going to

encounter again in other contexts.
Teaching strategies which will help support the active learning
of vocabulary and hence improved reading comprehension
(and writing) include the following: word walls; mini flipbooks;
designated vocabulary notebooks; class-generated glossaries
(using computers for images where relevant); flashcards;
vocabulary games (commercial or hand-made); spelling tests
and competitions; fun homework activities on new words;
word chains or word maps; and, of course, online vocabulary
programs and activities. As a final suggestion, recent research
on middle school EAL/D learners suggests that teachers
sometimes have little precise idea of their students vocabulary
knowledge or levels of comprehension, and that progress
in these areas is not a systematic focus nor systematically
recorded. Simple diagnostic testing will provide a baseline
for knowing where your EAL/D learners are in their word
knowledge, and for developing a program that is linguistically
responsive to their needs and their progress in language and
literacy learning.

EAL/D assessment and

All Australian states and territories have in place specialist
EAL/D resources and curriculum frameworks that are used
for planning and programming for EAL/D learners, and
tracking, monitoring and reporting on their progress in
learning Standard Australian English. Teachers of EAL/D
learners should implement diagnostic assessments to identify
where students are situated in terms of their level of English
(SAE) language proficiency, their mastery of the academic
language demands of each learning area and their knowledge
of curriculum content. This information will provide a guide
to where explicit instruction is required to ensure that EAL/D
learners specific needs are met, as well as the level of English
language support required to help them access the curriculum
across different learning areas.
The ACARA EAL/D Learning Progression comprises a
compilation of the various scales documents and standards
frameworks developed in Australia and overseas for EAL/D
learners. It identifies four phases of English language learning,
as follows:

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PETAA Paper 183: Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms

Beginning English students with some print literacy

in their first language. A subcategory, Limited Literacy

Background, is included to describe the reading/
viewing and writing behaviours typical of students with
little or no experience of literacy in any language
Emerging English students who have a growing

degree of print literacy and oral language competency

with English
Developing English students who are further

developing their knowledge of print literacy and oral

language competency with English
Consolidating English students who have a sound

knowledge of spoken and written English, including a

growing competency with academic language.
A range of assessment data and strategies should inform
teachers judgments about EAL/D learners progress. Formative
and summative assessments should focus on students skills
in each of the language modes listening, speaking, reading,
viewing and writing as well as on their knowledge and
understanding of curriculum content.
Comprehensive information on EAL/D learners progress can be
gathered through a variety of integrated assessment strategies,
including: formal, informal and impromptu speaking tasks
(eg, oral reports and descriptions, debates, panel discussions,
interviews, viva voce activities); observation of students

oral interactions and participation in

group work; listening comprehension
activities; cloze tests; reading logs;
analysis of student writing; learners selfassessments; and the like.
It is important to note that EAL/D
learners who do not meet age-related
assessment benchmarks in literacy and
numeracy, or who appear to achieve
alongside their English-speaking peers,
are not necessarily underperforming.
Rather, they are achieving at levels which
are consistent with their current phase of
English language learning. Developing
modified assessment strategies that
rely less on language and more on
content knowledge can enable EAL/D
learners at different phases of English
language learning to demonstrate their
understanding of curriculum content
(eg, allowing a Beginning EAL/D
learner to demonstrate understanding
of an arithmetical function or scientific
concept through a diagram or practical
activity, or comprehension of a narrative
through illustrations.)

EAL/D learners need targeted, systematic and explicit instruction based on their language needs and prior
learning. Given an inclusive and supportive classroom environment, appropriate learning experiences and
assessment practices, and the high expectations of their teachers, these students can and do achieve at the
same level as their English-speaking peers. We hope that this paper and the suggestions for further reading
below will assist teachers to identify and cater more effectively to the EAL/D learners in their classes.

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PETAA Paper 183: Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms

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Useful ref erences

Birch, B. M. (2002), English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Mahway, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, NJ.
Cummins, J. (1984), Bilingual Education and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy, College Hill, San Diego.
de Courcy, M. (2010), Linguistic and Cultural Diversity, pp. 37-62 in Hyde, M., Carpenter, L. and Conway, R. (Eds), Diversity and
Inclusion in Australian Schools, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.
Derewianka, B. (1990), Exploring How Texts Work, PETAA, Sydney.
Dufficy, P. (2005), Designing Learning for Diverse Classrooms, PETAA, Sydney.
Gibbons, P. (1991), Learning to Learn in a Second Language, PETAA, Sydney.
Gibbons, P. (2002), Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom,
Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH.
Grabe, W. (2009), Reading in a Second Language: Moving from Theory to Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1975), Learning How to Mean, Edward Arnold, London.
Hammond, J. (Ed.) (2001), Scaffolding: Teaching and Learning in Language and Literacy Education, PETAA, Sydney.
Hertzberg, M. (2012), Teaching English Language Learners in Mainstream Classes, PETAA, Newtown, Sydney.
Jones, P. (Ed.) (1996), Talking to Learn, PETAA, Newtown, Sydney.
Koda, K. and Zehler, A. M. (Eds) (2008), Learning to Read Across Languages: Cross-Linguistic Relationships in First- and SecondLanguage Literacy Development, Routledge, New York.
Miller, J. and Joel W. (2010), Second Language Literacy: Putting High Needs ESL Learners in the Frame, English in Australia 45.3,
pp. 3140.
Miller, J. (2007), Diving into Everyday Texts: From Comprehension to Production. Practically Primary, 12.2, pp. 2631.
Nation, I.S.P. (2006), How Large a Vocabulary is Needed for Reading and Listening? The Canadian Modern Language Review 63.1,
pp. 5982.

The English as an Additional Language or Dialect: Teacher Resource developed by ACARA for mainstream
teachers to use with the Australian Curriculum can be downloaded from
You can find the contact details for your state or territory professional TESOL association on the Australian
Council of TESOL Associations (ACTA) website at http://www.tesol.org.au/About-ACTA

About the authors

Dr Michle de Courcy is a Senior Lecturer in TESOL in the School of Education at the University of South
Dr Karen Dooley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Cultural and Language Studies in Education at the
Queensland University of Technology.
Dr Robert Jackson is President of the Australian Council of TESOL Associations (ACTA) and the Association for
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ATESOL) NSW.
Dr Jenny Miller is a Senior Lecturer in Second Languages in the Faculty of Education at Monash University.
Kathy Rushton is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.

Teaching English Language Learners in Mainstream Classes

Margery Hertzberg
978 1 875622 85 6
This PETAA title, released in 2012, addresses English language learning (ELL) pedagogical practices.
The book is particularly useful for mainstream teachers who have limited experience working with
EAL/D students. It considers general ELL (ESL, EAL/D) theory alongside some specific theories in
the areas of oracy, reading and writing. Illustrated with authentic and recent student work samples,
the book will also help teachers to plan an effective ELL program for the diverse needs of English
language learners.

2012 PETAA Primary English Teaching Association Australia. PETAA Paper 183: Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms

ISSN 2200-2189